No sooner had Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle wrapped up the second in a string of campaign rallies Thursday than he faced a barrage of questions he’d rather not hear: one query after another about President Donald Trump’s endorsement of his rival in next week’s GOP runoff for governor.
Cagle tied himself each time to Gov. Nathan Deal, who endorsed him earlier this week, and he lamented that Trump was misled by political advisers into supporting Secretary of State Brian Kemp, “a candidate who cannot win in November.”
“The only thing I can control is what I’m doing,” Cagle said. “The Deal-Cagle team has done wonderful things, and that’s what this race is going to come down to. The people of Georgia trust Governor Deal, and they also trust Casey Cagle to do the right thing.”
But there was no denying that Cagle, who was already trailing in the polls, was forced into damage control at the touchiest of moments — just before Tuesday’s contest. A front-runner from the moment he entered the race last year, now Cagle is the clear underdog.
Kemp, meanwhile, is hoping to leverage the full weight of the White House’s support. While Trump isn’t expected to campaign in Georgia before the vote, he’s sending a powerful stand-in: Vice President Mike Pence confirmed that he will headline a rally Saturday for Kemp in Macon.
The secretary of state is also unveiling a string of other late endorsements, including the support overnight from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, along with rolling out a final campaign ad that features the president’s tweet giving Kemp his “full and complete” backing.
“We’re going to be highlighting this. My phone is blowing up,” Kemp said in an interview. “But we’ve got to keep working hard. We have a long way to go until Tuesday night.”
The president’s endorsement was another jolt in an already-volatile race rocked by a secretly recorded conversation and bitter Republican infighting. The winner faces Democrat Stacey Abrams, who is competing to be the nation’s first black female governor.
And both Republican campaigns spent Thursday grappling with the fallout of the president’s tweet announcing his decision, which seemed to catch each candidate off-guard by the timing.
When it landed Wednesday afternoon, it came as the secretary of state was in the middle of a press conference. When he looked up to see ecstatic aides eyeing their cellphones and “jumping up and down,” Kemp knew something was up.
Cagle was equally surprised; his advisers said they had a meeting scheduled for Thursday to brief Trump on the race. It was promptly scrapped after the tweet.
During a long-scheduled bus tour Thursday, Cagle worked furiously to shore up support with wary donors and supporters.
His campaign highlighted Cagle’s tremendous financial advantage — he’s more than doubled Kemp in fundraising — and vast get-out-the-vote operation. And Cagle cast both Deal and Trump as the “gold star” endorsements that each campaign equally split.
There’s a limit to that argument. Although polls show both Trump and Deal have sky-high approval ratings among the Republicans who will decide the nomination, the president has a singularly strong pull among conservatives.
An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll last week showed one-fifth of likely GOP runoff voters say they’re voting in the race for governor chiefly to support the stronger ally to Trump.
The president’s soaring popularity among conservatives put Cagle’s backers in a tough spot, wary of his polarizing influence on the voters who will decide this race. Former U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland detected a hidden hand in the endorsement.
“I love the president. I think he’s doing a great job. Mike Pence is one of my dearest friends. I love the guy, I served with him in Congress. But he doesn’t know Brian Kemp,” said Westmoreland, who pointed toward Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue.
“Sonny, he was the king of the Georgia Republican Party there for a while,” he said of Perdue, a former Georgia governor who has stayed publicly neutral in the race. “And if he can play in this governor’s race, then he’ll stay that way.”
Perdue’s allies have denied any involvement in the decision.
“I’ve stayed out of the race personally, just like I stayed out of the primary of the presidential race in ‘16,” said U.S. Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., the secretary’s first cousin and a close ally of Trump’s. “I wanted to impact each person in the race about the issues I think are important, and so we were able to do that.”
Perdue said both Cagle and Kemp could defeat Abrams “and stand up for the values that we know have been working in the state for the last 16 years.”
Still, Trump’s endorsement has already strengthened some conservatives’ support for Kemp.
“It confirms I made the right choice,” said Andrew Lisska, a 64-year-old Roswell retiree. “I like Kemp’s values more than Cagle’s, as far as what he believes in and his support for businesses.”
As he journeyed from one campaign stop to another, Cagle dealt with a string of setbacks. He woke up to Gingrich’s endorsement of his rival, and news broke of Pence’s appearance as he trekked from a ribbon-cutting in Covington to a rally in McDonough’s town square.
At each stop, he talked about a closing strategy that revolves around two themes. The first is that Kemp will lose to Abrams in November, costing the GOP control of Georgia’s top office. And he’s telling undecided Republicans that he’ll be an extension of the governor’s eight-year legacy.
“Trust the counsel and advice of Governor Deal, who knows the state, who has governed the state, who has been all over the state,” he said. “He says there’s one man I trust to do the job, to continue the prosperity, and that’s Casey Cagle.”
Deal’s image has already been attached to flyers stuffing mailboxes across the state, and he has a cameo in Cagle’s final ad. But Deal is unlikely to play a bigger role. Cagle said he’s unlikely to appear in any rallies with the governor in the final stretch of the race.
His supporters, meanwhile, held out hope that Trump’s endorsement could wind up backfiring.
“I support his values and I know he’ll pull through this,” Shane Blalock, a McDonough student, said of Cagle. “This Trump endorsement might hurt Kemp in the long run. He’s modeling after Trump too much with his rhetoric, and voters don’t like that.”
Cagle didn’t go that far, but he was determined to show a fighting spirit.
Asked whether this was the biggest political adversity he’s faced, Cagle thought for a moment before summoning up his first statewide race, a bruising 2006 contest against Ralph Reed for Georgia’s No. 2 job. He was the long shot then, too.
“People didn’t think I could beat Ralph Reed in 2006,” he said. “This isn’t the first time I’ve been kicked, and it won’t be the last time.”
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Staff writers Tamar Hallerman and Aaron Holmes contributed to this article.